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The time of her life


Michael Short

Joan McCarthy is turning accepted notions of ageing and sexuality on their head.

Joan McCarthy

Joan McCarthy Photo: Eddie Jim

Joan McCarthy is happier than she's ever been. She's having some fabulous sex. She's working on her PhD Last year, she completed her first triathlon.

She is a melange of vivacity and serenity and wit and confidence and humility. She radiates liberation. And she says she's quite typical of women her age. Joan McCarthy is 72.

McCarthy is here in The Zone to discuss Sixty Strong and Sexy: Women Share Their Secrets, co-authored with Maureen Smith. They flew themselves from Perth to Melbourne to feature at the recent Emerging Writers' Festival.

Live chat with Joan McCarthy for an hour from midday today - leave your questions here

The book, which she started at 68, is a response to the widespread perception that getting older inevitably, insidiously undermines well-being.

''If you look at all the pieces of information that are out there about people in their sixties, it was saying one thing, but what we were finding was something really, really different. We felt vibrant, we felt alive, we felt as though we were having more fun than we have ever had in our whole lives.

''We said, 'there is a bit of a discrepancy here. I wonder if other women feel like we do'. The women we spoke to said that certainly they did. So we thought that we had better find out a bit more and we formulated a questionnaire.

''The information that we got there really confirmed what we felt - this was a time when our freedom was growing, our confidence was growing, and life was simply getting better.''

Of course, age does work as a cruel and inexorable partner to the mongrel fate and genetic legacy that render many lives difficult, if not miserable or worse. But, for those in passable health, whether through benevolent fortune or smart lifestyle decisions or both, McCarthy's point is life just gets better. She rejects the loaded notion of ageing, preferring to talk of a process of maturation.

''Ageing says you get to a certain age and then, sorry, yes but it is all downhill from here. Adult maturation says this is another stage of your life …

''[Developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik] Erikson would say that there is the age of integrity and then a final stage of 'generativity'. These are the stages of maturation. And when you reach the stage of integrity it means you're gathering all the wisdom of your life and integrating it and that's reflected in the studies that are done on the brain now. Then when you reach the age of generativity you are giving back to the generations coming behind you. Maureen and I are certainly experiencing this. I sit with my grandchildren and work with them on their assignments at uni. Maureen sits with her grandchildren and teaches them all sorts of life skills and so on, and we see this happening everywhere.''

It is the certainty of death that renders existence meaningful, gives each moment value. Eternal life is my definition of absurdity, and of hell. Were life - as opposed to the soul - endless, nothing would have any relative merit or interest.

To experience every parallel existence, to go through everything possible is the same as experiencing nothing; where infinity equates with zero. McCarthy and Smith found a range of responses to the knowledge of death.

''I have spoken with women who have designed their coffin and have prepared the coffin and have researched how they want their funeral to be. They have made a living will. There are many people who are doing that. There are other people who say 'no, I do not want to think about it, I just want to get on and play'.

''There is room in this world for everything and that's one of the things about ageing - as we age we sit more comfortably in our skin so that we become more truly who we really are, and that means that we become diverse.

''When we accept death it seems to me that it frees us up to live more fully exactly how we want to live. We know there is an end point. And it's getting closer and closer. So, what am I going to do? Am I going to get up today and go 'oh dear, my hip is aching, I don't think I can get to Melbourne today?' No! Forget that.''

McCarthy's wisdom and insouciance have been distilled from some trying experiences. The hardest thing she has ever done is endure the profound depression that followed being sacked, inappropriately she says, from running a health centre for indigenous Australians. She says it pummelled her to the point of considering not going on with life.

But she survived. Then she thrived. She studied. She wrote academic papers about health and sexuality and maturation. And now, as part of the book, she's challenging the modern notion that demographic pressures are a threat to the economy's capacity to generate sufficient wealth to meet the needs of the so-called ageing population.

''The media were putting forward the position of how are we going to look after all these old people? How can we afford it, there's going to be so many of them? How can we do that?

''And that just did not sit with what was in our lives, because both of us are supporting our children. And in this theory they were supposed to be supporting us. And how were they going to afford it?

''We've not looked at the fact that when the (population) graph was skewed the other way, we forget that children need an enormous amount of support - far more than older people need.''

One thing McCarthy reckons older women need is recognition, particularly in a world where young, classically attractive, airbrushed women are paraded as the epitome of desirability.

''Women become invisible at a certain age. And women that we have talked to keep saying 'how come we have become invisible?' As Gail Dines said, the only alternative to looking unfuckable is to become invisible.''

McCarthy and Smith are reclaiming visibility. They've also got some good news for those who might have feared that sexuality is the bastion of younger people.

There are, of course, multitudes who experience sexual problems, and others who simply gradually lose interest. The notion of normal encompasses an expansive set of behaviour. But, according to many of the women McCarthy and Smith questioned, sex improves with age.

''There are many billboards that tell you how with a pill you can have longer-lasting sex. Good sex is not about longer-lasting sex, in my opinion. Good sex is about a connection with the person with whom you are relating. It takes maturity.

''As we get older, men often get very, very anxious about performance. And when they are able to realise that it is less about performance and more about communicating, and relax, they discover, according to what women tell us, that it just gets better and better.

''There is the quote that we have got in our book from Marilyn Monroe, who is the great icon of all of sexiness, and she said that she's never had an orgasm. There is this dichotomy between being sexy and enjoying our sexuality.''

Perhaps the most important thing about the book is it doesn't really contain any big secrets, just thoughtfulness, good sense and openness. Time's passage brings freedom to many, well ahead of the ultimate liberty. The book is a celebration and exploration of life; it's that simple and that profound.

''Women consistently say 'oh, at last I can do what I want to do. I don't have to get up to the babies all night. I don't have to think about all sorts of things outside my area of my life. I can do what I want to do'. They have more courage. Their courage has increased and that is to do with the confidence.

''I might now have more lines than Telstra on my face but I don't bloody care any more. What's the point?''—Erikson


  • True to a point. I just turned 60 & I hate looking old, I hate the fatter belly, the wrinkles, the aches. Plus my hair is thinner & my teeth need constant work. Sex hurts. He can't keep it up long enough for what's the point? My hearing I'm sure is not as good...then when it's really bad no-one will talk to you. Then at about 70 you start to be invisible altogether. What happens to all the women by themselves & on the pension, trying to keep their old car on the road etc...I'm sure they think life is just fabulous...not. So it's all very well seeing the glass half full, but consistently as you lose things it becomes half empty. Bah humbug.

    Date and time
    June 27, 2011, 9:37AM
    • I wonder if McCarthy isn't fighting straw men (or women) here. She is of the women's liberation generation, as I am, and I don't know of too many of my sisters who are crying in their beer about growing old. The women I know, even the ones who opted for the conventional married-with-children lifestyle, are revelling in their freedom to be grumpy old women, to ignore the fear mongers and fountain-of-youth pushers, and to try out fellas who aren't boring old farts powered by Viagra.

      I think the old women she is thinking of are the pre-liberation old dears who are now in their 80s, not in their 60s. Feistiness is not unheard of in that cohort, but it is rarer as they grew up at a time when women "knew their place." And osteoporosis and broken hips can suck the feistiness out of the best of us, so let's see if McCarthy feels the same in 20 years!

      Sandra: You are fighting against old age instead of enjoying it. Instead of feeling bad about looking old (meaning not young), accept the freedom of not having to "doll up" every time you venture forth. See the doc about the painful sex and eat less and exercise more for the belly fat and aches. And if you are invisible now, I suspect you always were, except maybe to randy louts who fancied what you were offering.

      M T Pockets
      Date and time
      June 27, 2011, 10:14AM
      • So, Joan is doing all of tese things and having some fabulous sex. A woman is to sex like oil is to water - they repel it. Let me illustrate by outlining my own 62 years of experience. My mother abandonded the family when I was 4 (my sister was 2). Dad finally managed to bring her back for the sake of we kids but the lies etc continued and eventually she had a son to some one else. She damaged him in an effort to abort him, then left the handicapped child with dad when she left for the last time when I was 17.
        When I married, I made sure for the sake of my chidren that she would have no contact with them. If you think that sounds extreme, my sister had no children because of her.
        Then comes my marriage at 24. No sex till more than 10 months and then only because I threatened to have the marriage nullified for nonconsumation. Sex was very rare - eg. none in the 2nd half of my 30s and none now for nearly 15 years. I am over the lies, deception and manipulation that is a fundamental part of the female character. What married man has not heard the lie "I've got a headache"
        I have come to the conclusion that no woman ever loves a man anywhere near as much as she loves herself whether she be mother, wife or whatever. Let's see an article about how men feel at this age and how alone they feel.

        She's kidding, Right?
        Date and time
        June 27, 2011, 10:15AM
        • I get ogled by young and old guys. It's sort of weird because I ain't interested anymore.

          Bit I do chuckle...

          ogled oldie
          Date and time
          June 27, 2011, 10:46AM
          • She's Kidding: Women have a sixth sense for men who hate all women, as you do. Women do not exist solely for your care and pleasure and to look after the kids.

            If you married someone who denied you sex for 10 months after marriage, then you made a really bad choice. Didn't you ever fool around before marriage -- that was the era of free love, mate, if you are 62. How did you miss out on that?! Or did you select a woman who didn't have desires or like sex so she would not behave as your mother did?

            If you are lonely, it is your own fault because you couldn't get over your mother's betrayal. Sometimes loneliness is preferable to making someone else's life a misery with your unresolved hatred and distrust of women.

            M T Pockets
            Date and time
            June 27, 2011, 10:52AM
            • Pockets,
              My understandiing of women comes from experience, not the other way around. No, I did not fool around before marriage (nor after)and what era of free love - there is no such thing as free love. There is always a price.
              Yes, my mother did betray us and so has my wife. It is these women who have made my life a misery and as for my experience being unusul, when I went to the doctor many years ago for medication to suppress my natural desires, I found I was by no means alone. The doctor didn't bat an eyelid - he had several other men doing the same. I took that course of action for the sake of my children and I have no regrets in that regard. They are wonderful adults now.
              You sound just a little too shrill in your condemnation. Maybe you recognise someone close????
              I suggest you speak to men outside your usual circle and get ann understanding of how alienated so many men of feel. You might be surpised by what you learn.

              She's kidding, Right?
              Date and time
              June 27, 2011, 11:37AM
              • As I approach 60 I am about to complete postgraduate education with a view to becoming a secondary school teacher. How lucky will those students be to have me as their teacher? They will have access to a wealth of experience, of which I am eager to share. I will not be an adult secondary school student, teaching teenaged secondary school students.
                My psycho/demographic profile places me as an 'at risk' low socio-economic status (SES) male, but I refused, and continue to refuse, that tag. I have a healthy libido and look to women in my (general) age classification for companionship. I have had relationships with older women and have never sought a relationship with a woman less than ten years younger. From these experiences, I have had the best sex of my life so why should I look beyond that, although I was once 'picked-up' by a woman half my age.
                I agree that 'good sex' is about maturity.However, from a (one) male perspective, it is more than that. It is about learning from your partner. At a 'certain age', you know that the spin from the magazine covers such as Cleo and Ralph is just that - spin and a grab for circulation sales. You also know that pornography is only good for masturbation and generating profits (Butler, 2011). It does nothing for your mind, except possibly send you to sleep, as a lived relationship does.
                As Tom Waits sang, Idon't wanna grow up."

                Squirrel from Brunswick, now Bundoora
                Date and time
                June 27, 2011, 11:39AM
                • Another woman who wants to tell people what to do when they get older.

                  I am 66 and retired at 60. I do what I want within reason because I have to consider my wife.

                  I look like someone who has been through the up and down of quite an interesting life.

                  Why worry about anything, looks, getting old having aches (which I haven't) it just distracts you from being alive.

                  These day's you always here that people have a busy life.
                  Big deal.

                  I have a life and decide whether it is busy or not. I usually opt for the latter as it is better for my health. I have known men who had busy lives and dropped dead in their forties.

                  Sex, the most over rated of human activities. If you had it for 40 years it gets boring. After all it isn't anything new.

                  The other thing is everyone does get old. Some accept it, others don't get over it and the young ones don't realize it.

                  Date and time
                  June 27, 2011, 11:39AM
                  • No we are not kidding this is for real, life really does get better however it all depends on attitiude. Come to our seminar and have some fun with us
                    In regards to sexualty there is bonking "The whip it in, whip out, wipe it on the curtrains" variety, and then there is the lesser known "Sacred Sex" and that's why we wrote the book "Sixty Strong and Sexy" to inspire women to look further afield

                    Joan McCarthy
                    Date and time
                    June 27, 2011, 12:07PM
                    • Bundoora
                      Wonderful to hear about your post graduate study and the great sex. I wonder if you know about sacred sex?

                      Joan McCarthy
                      Date and time
                      June 27, 2011, 12:15PM

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